Joy Smith at the Imagineering Foundation explains why impressionable young minds should be a higher priority for those wishing to close industry skills gaps.
For the UK to maintain a thriving competitive economy in the future it will need a dynamic, innovative engineering-based manufacturing sector and a pool of skilled engineers at all levels.
Developing these skills has never been more urgent but these are not created overnight – and there we have the rub!
I asked a classroom of 10-year olds recently ‘What does an engineer do?’ I received a variety of responses from ‘repairs cars’ to ‘fixes Mum’s washing machine’, but amongst them was a little gem; ‘they design things’! Apparently this young chap’s Dad is an engineer.
This underlined the fact that we cannot wait until youngsters are 14 or 15yrs before we broaden their knowledge about engineering.
We need to bridge that gap in understanding amongst youngsters when at a more impressionable age – a fact increasingly being recognised by a wealth of organisations from SMEs to global manufacturing giants and utilities.
The National Curriculum may incorporate essential subjects but they are not always set in context with everyday life and the needs of modern manufacturing.
The Imagineering Foundation, an education charity, was established by engineers who recognised primary schoolchildren soak up knowledge and learn more readily through fun and personal engagement which is why its weekly after-school Imagineering Clubs for 9-13 year olds are proving so successful.
Children learn basic skills, how to use tools and the real life applications of the working models they make as well as why things work.
Volunteer engineer tutors, many of whom are supported by their employers, provide ideal role models, creating that important link between education and industry.
While it is difficult to track the development of individual children from their engagement with engineering activities and programmes at an early age through to college and beyond, in Imagineering we have some evidence our approach works. Georgia, who attended an Imagineering Club in Coventry as a 10-year old, is now studying engineering at a local College.
Emily wrote to thank her Imagineering Club tutor in Worcestershire for his inspirational work in the Club, which led to her studying medical engineering at Oxford.
Similarly Alex credits his choice of Manufacturing Engineering at University of Birmingham to his membership of a Club as a child – and today he works at Rolls-Royce.
Jaguar Land Rover, founding supporter of Imagineering, recognised that “the fun hands-on approach of the Imagineering Clubs makes a lasting impression on young minds”.
National Grid’s ‘Engineering our Future’ report a year or so ago found that young people often struggle to visualise what professional engineers do. As a result National Grid chose to support Imagineering as part of their employee volunteering initiatives. “As a major employer we recognise our responsibility to help young people understand where their science, maths and technical studies can lead them.”
But not enough companies actively support this view.
If we don’t inspire children at a much earlier age – a responsibility that future employers need to recognise – we will miss opportunities to reduce that ever-increasing skills gap.
It can take anywhere up to 10 years from childhood to develop engineers of tomorrow so we all need to increase our efforts now!